Richard Reeves

Presidents Are People, Too

DALLAS -- A few months ago, I agreed to talk at a program at the Sixth Floor Museum here, the building once called the Texas School Book Depository, the building from which Lee Harvey Oswald waited, on the sixth floor, with a rifle for the motorcade that carried President John F. Kennedy to Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963.

When the program of panels and presentations was sent to me a couple of weeks ago, I was surprised to see the title: "When Life Strikes the White House: Death, Scandal, Illness and the Responsibilities of a President." Reading that title, I thought, this is never going to work. I was wrong. The two days here provided some of the most interesting insights into American history that I have ever participated in -- and I have done more of this kind of thing than I care to remember.

The program was sponsored by the museum, three centers at Southern Methodist University and the George W. Bush Presidential Library on the SMU campus. Panels of presidential scholars from around the country -- too many to name here -- argued persuasively that there was a historic link between the physical and mental health of leaders that has had a significant, sometimes very significant, affect on their decision-making.

The program summary said it well:

"Americans demand much from their presidents. ... Yet they are also human, and sometimes, life strikes even the White House. Death can touch their family. They can fall ill. Their personal judgment can lapse. Everyday citizens typically ride out in privacy such personal trials. A president does not have that option. They have a moral, legal and most profoundly ethical responsibility to their office no matter what might be occurring in their private life. Indeed, at crucial points in the annals of the presidency, personal crises have affected a president's ability to lead, and even altered the nation's course."

I had to do a lot of homework for this one, which indicated deception and lying by presidents, almost from the beginning of the Republic, about their health. The most obvious example, I think, has to be the year and a half his wife and personal physician deliberately and aggressively misled the nation after President Woodrow Wilson had a stroke in 1919 while touring the country promoting American membership in the League of Nations.

The argument can be made, and was at this program, that Wilson's failure to relinquish the presidency could be said to have doomed the League. There was a lot of politics in Washington when the Senate refused to ratify the Versailles Treaty ending World War I, but the question remains: Could the League, with a strong American presence, have prevented World War II?

We now know that President Kennedy, his family, his friends and his aides lied and lied over the years about his fragile health. The man looked like a god, but he was sick and in pain almost every day of his life. Dr. David Owen, a neurologist and former foreign minister of Great Britain, in his 2008 book, "In Sickness and in Power," argues that the difference in President Kennedy's actions in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis of October of 1962, was that his health was significantly better because of physical therapy in 1962, compared with 1961, when he was being pumped up with adrenalin and procaine shots.

In another Kennedy example, David Blumenthal and James A. Marone, in their 2009 book, "The Heart of Power," state Kennedy's support of universal health care (later called Medicare) was not a political move, but a reaction to the stroke that disabled his father, Joseph P. Kennedy.

Some of the information on this subject is almost terrifying, beginning with the fact that Dr. Owen concludes that two important presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, were suffering from bipolar disorder. Depression was the name of the game, at least for me, in Dallas. The secrecy and lying about presidential health was depressing; more depressing was evidence that almost every American president, most notably Abraham Lincoln, suffered from severe and repeated depression.

And why not? They were human. Wives and children and parents died, cancer and heart disease struck -- and they reacted the way most of us have or would. There was much, much more, some of it amazing, but this story can't be told in a column. A book will published about the Texas program. It will be impossible to put it down without gaining a new understanding about the rigors of leadership.

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